Burning Man is easily one of the most fascinating and least understood phenomena of our time. The event is extremely difficult to describe and even more difficult to photograph, in part because it changes from year to year, in part because the conditions are so extreme that words fail to capture them, and in part because the experience is so intense that even the most ardent chroniclers are drawn in as participants.
The festival takes place on "The Playa", a flat, lifeless, sunbaked, dusty, alkaline hell at the heart of the Black Rock Desert, roughly 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. Walking barefoot in this environment produces painful dried and cracked feet, a condition known as "playa foot". Breathing in the dusty air produces nasal congestion and brutal nosebleeds, a condition known as "playa nose". Drinking less than 3 liters of water per day leads to acute dehydration and desiccation, a condition known as "death". There is no harsher or more apocalyptic environment on Earth.
Black Rock City
Contrary to popular belief, what makes Burning Man so unique is not the burning of a huge effigy, nor a vast collection of installation artwork, nor even a bunch of naked people wandering around in the desert doing ecstasy and acid. What makes the festival unique is the phenomena known to its residents as "Black Rock City". Black Rock City is an autonomous community of roughly 30,000 people that exists for one week out of every year, the last week of August, in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. The city is constructed anew at the beginning of the week by the returning residents, and torn down entirely, leaving not a single trace that human beings were ever there, at the end of the week. During that week, it is one of the largest cities in Nevada.
If this does not already sound extraordinary to you, then consider that this temporary city is equipped with an airport, radio stations, daily newspapers, a sports arena unlike any other, a postal service, an overnight courier service, taxicabs, a drive-in movie theater, bars, clubs, yoga classes, hair salons, pancake houses, etc. If you STILL aren't convinced that this is the most incredible phenomena you've ever heard about, then consider further that Black Rock City has essentially no government - nearly everything is created spontaneously by the residents of the city, who travel there from around the world, each constructing and operating their own district with no direction from anyone.
And yes, the chief landmark of Black Rock City, directly at the center of the community, is indeed a 70 foot tall wooden man who immolates himself near the end of the festival.
There is no money in Black Rock City, leaving gifts and barter as the only means of transaction. It isn't at all uncommon to tell a story for your meal or owe a favor for your drink at the local pub. This leads to what one might call an "economy of personality", where interactions with other people overshadow the movement of goods and services. As a result, you meet and form relationships with your neighbors QUICKLY - so fast that by the end of the week, you and your neighbors consider yourselves "citizens" of Black Rock City, and the folks who show up for the last two days (to see the Man burn) are considered just "tourists" - the experience is PROFOUND.
If you read my description of the harsh conditions on the Playa earlier in this page, rest assured that it is worse than it sounds. Dust storms can sweep down in minutes and last for days, reducing visibility to inches, making unassisted breathing difficult, and covering everything in up to a foot of dust. High winds can tear tents loose from their moorings and carry small objects off into oblivion. This leads some to refer to part of the Burning Man experience as "extreme camping" or "survival camping".
As luck would have it, these harsh conditions serve to make the whole event more vivid. Local businesses pride themselves on remaining open through dust storms. Food and water taste better when they stand between you and death. And by god, what could be more adorable than a gorgeous young woman wearing nothing but a full face respirator? You'll just have to trust me on this one.
One of the most amazing things about Black Rock City is a kind of cultural diversity. There are literally hundreds of distinct and contrary enclaves, living right next to each other in relative harmony. Some of the notables are:
Death Guild: Very closely associated with the Department of Public Works that sets up the basic infrastructure of the city, these folks model their apocalyptic wardrobe and aggressive behavior after the Mad Max films. They ride around in blasted out vehicles sporting high caliber gas cannons, which they fire into the crowd at night. Death Guild goes so far as to run a real life Thunderdome, right out of the movie of the same name, in which combatants suspended within the dome bash each other senseless with padded bars.
HeeBeeGeeBee Healers: A huge shaded collective of experts in yoga, reiki, shiatsu, and other methods of rejuvenating the body and spirit. The healers' lessons draw citizens from all over the city.
Space Cowboys: Legendary ravers who pilot the "Audio Visual Assault Vehicle", a Mercedes Benz Unimog (imagine a huge military troop transport) fitted with massive video displays, a bubble for a DJ, and a sound system that would put most dance clubs to shame. The hottest party in Black Rock City is invariably in whatever patch of open desert the Space Cowboys have decided to park "the Unimog".
Glitter Camp: A cheerful group whose members wear little more than a splash of glitter, and who are always trying to convert others to their style of dress.
The Duck: An awesome jazz club and gambling house, complete with a live band and a couple of spectacular divas, all housed in a GIANT rubber duck out in the middle of the desert. No, I'm not making this up. No, I wasn't on acid.
Tuna Guys: Real life tuna fishermen from Oregon, who ice their last catch before the event and cook it up daily for all those Black Rock citizens hungering for fresh seafood in the desert.
Mutaytor: A full-on concert stage blazing with tribal rock, fire twirlers, and half-naked dancers. Need I mention that they hail from Los Angeles?
Safari Social Club: A neighborhood bar where all the drinks are free, but contributions of alcohol and mixers are welcome. Founded by Will Hobbs, formerly of HomePage, this is the camp I was affiliated with.
Dr. Megavolt: A man...nay...a DEMIGOD, fully clad in a suit of metal armor and wielding a trident, DOING BATTLE WITH A TESLA COIL. No, I'm not making this one up either. Just imagine a wood beam reduced to cinders by an arc of lightning while he holds it in his hand. NO, I ALREADY SAID I WAS NOT ON ACID!
One of the few governmental bodies in Black Rock City is the Department of Mutant Vehicles (oddly enough, a place with kindly staff and no lines), whose sole function is to ensure that nothing moves in the city unless it has been artistically modified in some way. The influence of the DMV is subtle but extremely potent, as the streets are not filled with Nissans and Fords and BMWs, but with whales, pirate ships, and jellyfish (oh my!).
There is in fact a whole culture surrounding these vehicles, as most are modified to carry additional passengers, to provide some means of boarding them while they're in motion, and often to haul around a bar complete with bartender. Transit through the city or the open desert is most often achieved by jumping aboard a moving vehicle, and either going where it takes you, or bribing the driver to divert course where you want to go.
Some of the notables this year were:
The Disco Fish: A van covered in reflective scales and neon, extending a fin from both open sides so that folks could jump on for a ride or party on the inside. Liquid light displays projected onto the Playa ahead of the vehicle give the illusion of transit through water, while a ripping sound system announces the arrival of the Fish with...well...Disco.
The Whale: A huge city bus modified to be the spitting image of a luminous white whale, thundering down the Playa under the control of a drunken lunatic. At one point The Whale had a grudge against The Duck, and there was fear that The Duck would be rammed in the dead of night.
The Madeira: A full three-masted pirate ship piloted by an amazing group of rogues who decided they liked my bartending. The Madeira and her crew would raid unsuspecting camps, taking supplies, women, or whatever else they could get their hands on and sailing for the open desert with them, before returning to demand some form of ransom for their return.
City of Lights
There is really no way to adequately describe Black Rock City at night. Nearly every building, vehicle, and person is ensconced in electroluminescent wire or some other form of illumination, up to and including Tesla coil brought to life by one of the more resourceful citizens. Black Rock is a true "City of Lights", like an anarchist version of Disney's Electric Parade, on a MUCH vaster scale.
Despite this most amazing of spectacles, you'll find fewer images than one would expect of the city at night. The reasons for this apparent media blackout are threefold: Firstly, there is so much dust in the air that flash photography is useless. Secondly, there is so much motion that photography without the use of flash tends to be blurred or dark beyond recognition. Thirdly, the nightlife is so enticing that even the most hard core photographers are likely to leave their cameras back in camp.
Want to see what Black Rock City REALLY looks like at night? You'll have to go there.
Last Year Was Better
Every year since the first, people inside and outside of Burning Man have been saying that the previous year was better, and that "Burning Man Is Over". In fact, the first sign you see upon entering the Burning Man festival says "This year's Burning Man isn't as good as last year's, again". Having spoken with folks who've been going to the event since 1991, and now having participated in it myself, I'm pretty confident that the issue is that, like any growing city, BURNING MAN CHANGES FROM YEAR TO YEAR.
Here are some of the changes that have warranted complaints from the folks who attended Burning Man when it was 100 people on a beach in the Bay Area: You can no longer bring guns and fire them off into the sky. You can no longer detonate explosives without warning to your neighbors. You can no longer drive your car at high speeds through the city. The city now has roads allowing citizens and Emergency Services to find things.
Admittedly, Manhattan had a bit more spunk back in the days when you'd get shot walking through Times Square, and Burning Man had a bit more spunk back in the days when you could get blown up by a drunk playing with dynamite. I guess we each decide where the proper balance between freedom and civilization is.
There is tremendous debate over the meaning and central experience of Burning Man. In my mind, it is simple:
Black Rock City is a playground for adults.
I don't mean this is in the idiotic way that everyone refers to Las Vegas or Amsterdam as playgrounds for adults. Sex, drugs, and gambling are all great FUN mind you, and sex and drugs are certainly plentiful in Black Rock, but what Black Rock uniquely provides is not just FUN but PLAY. Remember what is was like to be eight years old? Remember when you could nail together a bunch of wood to make a treehouse, and when that treehouse could become the Hall of Justice with some imagination and maybe a few props? Remember when you saw some ninja flick on television and made your own throwing stars with your friends? Remember when building something with Legos and envisioning a whole reality behind it was second nature?
Burning Man is an environment built entirely by that same sense of childlike wonder, only backed up with adult knowledge, adult skills, and adult resources. Instead of little treehouses, people build huge geodesic domes. Instead of Legos, they use power tools. Instead of making a few cupcakes with Easy Bake Ovens, they run whole restaurants from propane rigs.
For one week out of the year, this amazing group of people gets together to build a community of collective imagination, something which really has to be seen to be believed.
There are 18 days left until the next Burning Man. At some point you need to ask yourself, "Am I seeking a truly profound experience that may change my outlook on life?"